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Don't be shy

When I was an undergrad, my digital logic course (a simple course on sequential and combinational logic gates, with a tiny touch of circuit theory) was taught by Gerard G. L. Meyer, who later became the head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) department at Johns Hopkins.

Dr. Meyer was very strict, and he spared no egos. Once in the spring semester of 1990 I went to him (as a nervous 16-year old sophomore) with a question about truth tables and Karnaugh maps. He pulled a microrecorder out of his desk drawer, held it up to me, and drawled: "I am going to tape what you say, and play it back to you, so you can hear how inane your question is."

Now, honestly, my question was pretty inane. I mean, how hard is propositional logic - especially when you are 16? Dr. Meyer solved the problem I'd been struggling with for about 20 minutes in about 20 seconds (really), and I left that day able to solve the problem just as quickly. More important, I was much more self-demanding when it came to working problems.

I don't say that sort of thing to students, because you never know what kind of fragile self-esteem you might trash that way, and certainly I don't advocate tearing into people out of malice or some kind of intellectual chauvinism. However, perhaps a little ass-kicking now and again to get people over themselves is not a bad thing.

During the first week of his course, Dr. Meyer related the following anecdote in a heavy French accent:
When I was young (many years ago) I was a university student in France, and in those days students were required to serve in French ROTC. Furthermore, one of the requirements for French ROTC trainees was that one had to know how to swim.

Now, in those days, they had an interesting procedure for teaching people how to swim while testing whether we could. In a foundry near the training camp was a deep pit, about twenty-five metres long, eight metres wide, eight metres deep, and filled about halfway to the brim with water that was mixed with black coal dust.

In my class there were fifty students. Now, the instructors took us to the foundry, lined us up on the edge of the pit, and said: "young men [for we were all men], if you do not know how to swim: don't be shy". Then they pushed us in. Twenty-five of us could swim, and we did. Twenty-five of us could not. Twenty-four of these began to call out to be rescued. The instructors let those of the trainees who could not swim thrash for a while to learn.

One student - he was shy.

Forty-nine students came out of the pit that day.

Let me tell you: none of us hestitated to raise our hands to ask questions. And though we thought twice before going to the instructor's office hours or the teaching assistant's, all of us went - and we did not leave until we were bodily kicked out or we really understood the answer. More often, it was the latter, I am glad to report.

To paraphrase Vic Vyssotsky (quoted in reference to John Roebling in the "Back of the Envelope" chapter of Jon Bentley's Programming Pearls), I wonder: are we engineering teachers like Gerard Meyer?

Edit, 11:15:
Happy birthday, shine_to_shame!

--
Banazir

Comments

( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
lilithharp17
Dec. 3rd, 2004 04:54 am (UTC)
Question
I know your logic is better than mine. Do you mean to say they let a young man, the one shy Sir. Did that man die that day? Did all the others let one man drown to death because the leadership governing the water did withhold rescue of that one shy man?

I hope you did not see a familiar and hard lesson in too much obedience and no brains? Did one man die that day to the witness of all in the water that day?
rsmit212
Dec. 3rd, 2004 05:10 am (UTC)
Re: Question

It means that one man, too shy, died because he said nothing about his lack of ability to swim. He didn't flounder, he didn't yell, he was too shy to say he couldn't swim, so he sank beneath the surface and was lost.
zengeneral
Dec. 3rd, 2004 05:41 am (UTC)
Re: Question
society needs to sacrifice weakness
banazir
Dec. 3rd, 2004 08:57 am (UTC)
*activates lightsabre*
Come a little closer and say that again...

--
Banazir
banazir
Dec. 3rd, 2004 09:07 am (UTC)
Rescue
Actually, Dr. Meyer went on to explain that the black water was very opaque, and though there were instructors enough to pull people out, it was difficult to find them if they didn't make any sound and just floundered and sank.

Obviously the example isn't great as far as it being (IMO) unsound practice to teach swimming that way, but the intellectual analogue is reasonable: the real world is a "sink or swim" endeavor, and so should learning be. Equally important, I came to realize during the course that Meyer really did care whether we learned or not, for all that he declared that it was our responsibility and no skin off his back if we didn't.

--
Banazir
rsmit212
Dec. 3rd, 2004 09:22 am (UTC)
Re: Rescue

But, that's the key. You have to be willing to put forth the effort to learn before he'd take any extra time to assist your understanding.
banazir
Dec. 3rd, 2004 01:35 pm (UTC)
Putting forth the effort
Just so, but what I was getting at is that life-and-death situations do not necessarily form the best analogy with learning. Yes, it is fundamental, and sometimes lives (including the learner's) depend on the effort of the learner.

The lesson I learned was not "try or die" but "people are standing by to help you, but they need to know how and where you need help - sometimes that you need help".
Ernest Hemmingway once said, 'The world is a beautiful place, and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part.
    -Morgan Freeman, Seven

--
Banazir
neadods
Dec. 3rd, 2004 05:28 am (UTC)
Your Dr. Meyer reminds me of one of the crusty old History profs at Kenyon. He was a difficult man to learn from - apparently he'd had the lisp before both the strokes - but he was brilliant and took no crap.

But because he taught medieval history, every year his intro class was full to bursting with dragon-slayer wannabes. His method of weeding the wannabes from the historians was to introduce himself and then announce, "All of you will flunk the first test. The second test you will... show improvement."

1/3 of the class inevitably dropped out that day. Another third refused to study, on the basis that they were doomed anyway. The last third buckled down fiercely with an attitude of "you are SO passing me or explaining your policies to the Department Head, you old coot."

He never gave quarter and he was one of the best teachers I ever had.
chaosinaskirt
Dec. 3rd, 2004 06:26 am (UTC)
he reminds me of one of the best instructors i had as an undergrad. wasn't even a "real" prof - he was a graduate ta that got stuck teaching a bunch of juniors the ins and outs of mechanics of materials.

he'd tell stories like that and the also sobering stories (real or made up, i'm not sure how it matters) of how "real engineers" doing mechanics analysis screwed up and people die (which became a rather macbre in-joke for everyone that's had him).

he was great, and kicked our asses on a daily basis. and while we didn't appreciate it, in subsequent classes that relied on that material.. well, you could tell who had the marine and who had the profs, because those of us with gunny actually remembered most things.... to the point that i'm not too concerned that it's been roughly 5 years since i've had mechanics for next semester's adv mechanics course...
yahvah
Dec. 3rd, 2004 06:06 am (UTC)
You ever wonder if Dr. Meyer was a sophomore at age 16? ;-)
banazir
Dec. 3rd, 2004 08:56 am (UTC)
Paint Your Books Yellow
Mais bien sûr! Pourquoi pas?

My favorite G.G.L. Meyer anecdote besides the above is how he always used to say:
Undergraduates, you believe that if you paint your book yellow, the information will somehow be carried by ultraviolet/flourescent reflectance into your brain. When you get to be graduate students, you learn that if you xerox your book, then you understand. The toner powder carries knowledge. So! Paint your books now, and later, xerox them, then you will learn.

Most sarcastic... prof... ever. Frelling awesome.

--
Banazir
discoflamingo
Dec. 3rd, 2004 09:48 am (UTC)
My favorite professors in undergrad beat knowledge into us like a metal ball penetrating our skulls. That's knowledge that defies surgery!
banazir
Dec. 3rd, 2004 10:32 am (UTC)
Chewing stones
Teaching the young is like chewing stones.
    -Masai proverb (quoted by my father's Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Clever, Professor Emeritus, Emory University)

--
Banazir
(off to get my bowl of Fruity Pebbles for today)
discoflamingo
Dec. 3rd, 2004 10:59 am (UTC)
Re: Chewing stones
Dr. Clever? That's right up there with the Dr. Doom that works at Kentucky State!
banazir
Dec. 3rd, 2004 11:08 am (UTC)
I can do better than that
My nickname in graduate school really was Octopus.
(Because I used to open 8 telnet windows on the Engineering Workstations to run jobs! What did you think? ;-))

--
Banazir
discoflamingo
Dec. 3rd, 2004 01:13 pm (UTC)
O, I like that
But your name is only a nickname - Dr. Doom's real last name is Doom (I went to school with his son, and he just went by Doom).
banazir
Dec. 3rd, 2004 01:37 pm (UTC)
Fandom names
I wonder if there are a lot of Judge Dreads and Doctor Octaviuses out there. Certainly names such as Perry White and Clark Kent have to still exist despite the popular overloading.

--
Banazir
discoflamingo
Dec. 3rd, 2004 02:05 pm (UTC)
Re: Fandom names
Well, Office Space viewers remember what happened to Michael Bolton . . .
banazir
Dec. 3rd, 2004 07:30 pm (UTC)
Office Space
OK, OK, I do need to watch that.
Only - enlighten me for now?

--
Banazir
grain_king
Dec. 4th, 2004 03:04 pm (UTC)
Re: Office Space
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0151804/quotes
Samir: No one in this country can ever pronounce my name right. It's not that hard: Samir Na-gheen-an-a-jar. Nagheenanajar.
Michael Bolton: Yeah, well at least your name isn't Michael Bolton.
Samir: You know there's nothing wrong with that name.
Michael Bolton: There was nothing wrong with it... until I was about 12 years old and that no-talent ass clown became famous and started winning Grammys.
Samir: Hmm... well why don't you just go by Mike instead of Michael?
Michael Bolton: No way. Why should I change? He's the one who sucks.
banazir
Dec. 4th, 2004 03:23 pm (UTC)
Michael Jordan
LOL!

So which of Michael J. Jordan and Michael I. Jordan should say that about the other? :-D

--
Banazir
istari_ala
Dec. 3rd, 2004 10:46 am (UTC)
Metaphorical value aside, it's very hard to shout out with your head under water. My dad sinks like a rock if he isn't swimming forward. He certainly isn't shy.

Of course, teachers (IME) like telling stories about people who died because they did something wrong. I'd bet one of Meyer's ROTC classmates or instructors told him the story.
banazir
Dec. 3rd, 2004 11:11 am (UTC)
Metaphor is nine tenths of the lah
Metaphorical value aside, it's very hard to shout out with your head under water. My dad sinks like a rock if he isn't swimming forward. He certainly isn't shy.
Well, yeah. Also I somehow doubt a student was intentionally allowed to drown to prove a point.

Of course, teachers (IME) like telling stories about people who died because they did something wrong.
Heck, yeah! It's a perk of the job! W00t! :-P

I'd bet one of Meyer's ROTC classmates or instructors told him the story.
Entirely possible. Also possible that he was embellishing and the student drowned as a result of other factors.

--
Banazir
lilithharp17
Dec. 3rd, 2004 11:01 am (UTC)
Survival
Surviving against all odds takes character and the lack of it to beat all odds. The instructor either knew the outcome or did not. He may not have known one person would die but the foreknowledge and the agreement of one being able to die and allowing it to happen is a real military lesson my friend.

I do not doubt one minute he really wanted you to see that dynamic and was given permission for any outcome.

You do know that now or you do not. Let's just say I may not have passed that test. I would have saved my person next to me no matter if Hitler was or was not watching me and as a raw recruit it just came to me and I was very afraid to stand up.

If my drill was the Emperor of China maybe I would have stayed seated because I would die. But an American, doing that? Well, I had to take my chances with the fellow recruit convulsing possibly upstairs and tell myself this was not war, where even my snoring would give my fellow soldier's postion away, or crying out in pain.

I was the only one to stand up while my drill ranted that cowards are left to die in war and if she took pills she deserved to die.

I just felt she needed a doctor and if no other person of the same American mind, us being the lessor of the two controls would do anything in this horrific dynamic, at least by standing up, I was a human being and she did go home after her second try as a hold over at Ft Jackson, South Carolina.

But it is scary to watch the group dynamic take over where everyone in the room realizes right or wrong but no one will do the right thing and someone could very well die and there'd we all would be; accomplices to one murder.

Because if she was suicidal and she was, and even if she only wanted attention though negative, there were her fellow soldiers all sitting with me and one United States Army Drill Sergeant in charge and he never looked at what her condition was and in a convulsion possibly the person does not swallow their tongue but it might get chewed up enough for her to choke in other ways.

So I am happy that she got the help she needed and I did graduate by other means not described by anyone I ever knew who graduated properly and with any more honor than I did.

Getting along does not mean turning a blind eye when another soldier is being harmed or man or human being unless every life is on the line. That is my opinion. We were only on post in America and not on the battlefield and she was not acting normal in any way and had just gotten back from one suicide attempt. He had no right to put her in harms way and delay assessment as he was a medic and knew how to tell what to do in a situation.

He taught me it takes guts to disobey a lawful order and you better have the character to back it up. Sooner or later you will go home for it; but in the very least you are a good to go troop.
grain_king
Dec. 3rd, 2004 12:35 pm (UTC)
Remind me to never join the French ROTC.
banazir
Dec. 3rd, 2004 01:13 pm (UTC)
LOLOL
Well, yes, that is one possible lesson learned.

--
Banazir
lilithharp17
Apr. 23rd, 2005 07:43 am (UTC)
Re: LOLOL
This grasshopper saw that in 1984 and has thought about that moment, until I first started writing it out. So, I have thought out the possibility of the Sergeant striking the troop, killing the troop, or worse.

The dynamic felt bad. The ideas felt bad in the open air as he ordered everyone to listen to his views. In war, nothing is fair and only after time do Vets of war get over their experiences or not.

We have many visual representations in movies, Sean Penn's example in his movie, with the rape of a Vientnamese captive woman. The right or wrong of rape vs the feelings building in men tasked to fight and afraid of every person they see, because there is no defined enemy. Any citizen of that country could be the enemy at the time, down to a babe in diapers.

Not pretty, and I am not a student of war. I am sure that students of torture and mayhem and interrogation know more about what helps them sleep at night and what they tell themselves to rockabye them to sleep.

I will give you this. If I were a general and I had a sum of men, they would be getting out of harms way before the enemy got any consideration. So, as it was their soil, we cannot disagree with utilizing any person in a opposing battle plan. It has to be psychologically hard on character to watch the enemy jump up and out of the ground and disappear into a bunker or hole.

It is good skill to learn for both genders. How to forget yourself for your nation when working a battleplan. You do sacrifice a part of yourself whenever you serve as a group to meet a common goal. Team playing is not really Rank and file either. You have only one choice and that is to obey.
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )

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